By now an acclaimed classic with a stream of revivals, this is the Emma Dante show that so shocked part of the gallery on its opening night in 2009. A free, secular and rebellious Carmen, mired in a world of grey and dusty decay, bedecked with religious ornaments, votive offerings and blood-red gashes. A maiden Carmen, untouched by social hypocrisy, an unsullied martyr, almost angelic. The leads were played by Elīna Garanča and José Cura, then revisited by Anita Rachvelishvili (making her debut to great acclaim in this show) and Francesco Meli. The baton is wielded by the world-renowned opera specialist Massimo Zanetti.
The most reliable experts swear that the opera is the most widely performed in the world. However, when it was first staged at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 3 March 1875, it was given a rather frosty reception. The fact that the public did not understand it was a cause of deep sorrow to Bizet, who died three months later at the age of only thirty-six. Even so, Carmen ran for 48 consecutive performances, which can hardly be considered a negligible figure, although ironically, the audiences were drawn by the opera’s reputed indecency and its condemnation by the press. “Our stages are increasingly invaded by courtesans. This is the class from which our authors so like to recruit the heroines of their dramas and their opéras-comiques”, wrote Achille de Lauzières in his review published in La Patrie on 8 March. He went on: “It is the fille in the most repugnant sense of the word [that has been set on stage]; the fille who is obsessed with her body, who gives herself to the first soldier that passes, on a whim, as a dare, blindly; […] sensual, mocking, hard-faced; miscreant, obedient only to the law of pleasure; […] in short, well and truly a prostitute off the streets”. The critic for the Petit Journal on 6 March said of the interpretation of Carmen: “Madame Galli-Marié has found how to make the character of Carmen more vulgar, more hateful and more abject than it already was in Mérimée. Her interpretation is brutally realistic, in the manner of Courbet”. We shall return to the realism and to Célestine Galli-Marié, the first to play the role of Carmen; however, it should be strongly underlined that perceiving Carmen as a fille, a prostitute, is a defensive reaction, typical of the bourgeoisie, and of which there is no evidence in the opera. If anything, she is the opposite: Carmen never sells herself; she is a free woman (this is the real scandal), wholly coherent and uncompromising. “Jamais Carmen ne cédera, libre elle est née et libre elle mourra” [Never will Carmen cede, free she was born and free she will die].
If we wish to measure the distance that separates Bizet’s Carmen from an average opéra-comique of the time, we might refer to a previous adaptation of Mérimée’s story, La fille d’Égypte (1862) by Jules Barbier, with music by Jules Beer. Browsing through this banal work, writes Hervé Lacombe, “it is easier to understand the formidable challenge of Bizet’s score to the mellifluous conventions of the opéra-comique”. However, it should also be pointed out how, at the same time, Bizet’s Carmen went against the poeticising tendency typical of the period (see Thomas’s Mignon of 1866), which was pushing the opéra-comique towards the delicate sentimentalism of the opéralyrique. Bizet himself had also moved in this direction with his Djamileh, staged at the Opéra-Comique in 1872. And the same can be said of the revival of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette under the direction of Bizet at the Opéra Comique in 1873. So, with Carmen, Bizet doubly dissociates himself, from the opéra-comique on the one hand, and from the opéra-lyrique on the other. The category to which Carmen belongs, however, is still not clear today and something of a problem. “They say that I am obscure and complicated,” Bizet tells his mother-in-law, “but this time I have written an opera that is completely clear, lively, colourful and melodious.” Like the dramatic mechanisms used, it is elementary music.
It may be easier to understand Carmen by looking firstly at Daudet’s L’Arlé- sienne, a play for which Bizet wrote some beautiful incidental music in 1872. The use of pre-existing material taken from the Provencal folk tradition, in order to create a musical background against which to set the action, anticipated one of the features of Carmen: let us not forget that the famous Habanera from the first act is based on a then popular Spanish song, El Arreglito, by Sebastián de Yradier. The effect of contrast between the painful explosion of the individual drama and the jubilant sound of the incidental music describing the action with its festive folk sound closely links the finales of the first and fourth tableaux in L’Arlésienne with the last act of Carmen. And indeed, the enhancement of the theatrical dimension in Bizet’s last opera is extremely evident. If the mixed forms of drama appeared to the opéra-lyrique to be a throwback to the past (Roméo et Juliette, mentioned above, was performed with the recitatives sung), the spoken dialogues in Carmen acquire considerable importance. The same can be said for the mélodrames (the simultaneous presence of spoken dialogue and music) already experimented in L’Arlésienne. Nowadays, we are not wholly aware of this, because even in the most “philological” productions the spoken parts are unashamedly cut. The famous realism of Carmen lies firstly in the structure: the amount of incidental music, justified by the action and the backdrop against which it takes place, is very surprising and corresponds to the enhancement of the theatrical dimension mentioned previously. Carmen’s songs in the first and second acts would be as pertinent even if we were to imagine the opera as a spoken theatrical drama. Then, of course, there is Don José’s song performed off-stage and again the first part of his duet with Carmen in the second act, which are pure theatre, pure incidental music. Célestine Galli-Marié was the singer who first starred as Carmen, and who worked closely with Bizet on modelling the character. As Hervé Lacombe explains, her interpretation of the part was based more on the effectiveness of her acting than on her voice or her ability to sing. The first success of Carmen came with its production in Vienna during the autumn of 1875 and coincided with a series of interventions including additions, rewritings, indications for its execution, which were more or less justified and had the intention of normalising/lightening Bizet’s original score, and which became the standard in Ernest Guiraud’s version. Following Fritz Oeser’s questionable critical version of the Sixties, musicologists from around the world have begun to look at the opera again and to clean it up with the aim of returning to a version that is as close as possible to what Bizet intended. Robert Didion’s version for La Scala is without a doubt a further step in this direction. - Emilio Sala